Robert Warwick stars in this biopic of Nathan Hale, which boasts a screenplay by a very young Frances Marion. There are powdered wigs and heroic poses in abundance but, lest things get too stodgy, there are also a surprising number of spicy title cards. Oo-la-la!
One Life to Live
What the heck is it about the American Revolution? For a conflict with such juicy elements and so much emotional resonance, it cannot seem to catch a break at the movies. The Civil War? WWI, WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam… They have mantles full of Academy Awards. Even the French and Russian revolutions have done pretty well for themselves in Hollywood. But feature films set during the American Revolution are often panned by critics and/or ignored by audiences. Revolution (1985), anyone? Didn’t think so. (Yes, I have seen the recut.)
Of course, there are exceptions here and there and I know some are holding out hope for a screen adaptation of Hamilton but for my money, the best films about the good ol’ spirit of 1776 have either involved wabbits (Bunker Hill Bunny) or Mary Pickford in a Hessian uniform (The Hessian Renegades).
You may have some favorites too (and feel free to share them as long as they are not directed by Roland Emmerich) but I think we can all agree that THE film of the American Revolution has not yet been made. I mean, Bunker Hill Bunny is close but…
I also have a nostalgic fondness for the cornball that is Swamp Fox—and I curse Disney for including that ridiculously catchy theme song that gets stuck in your head for days. (Colonial times seem to generally fare better on the small screen in the form of shows, miniseries and TV movies. Apparently, the revolution will be televised.)
Well, today we’re going to see if the good people making movies in 1916 were better at capturing the proper colonial spirit. Before we start, let’s lay down the elements we are looking for in a good historical war picture:
The historical figures should come alive, not just pose and quote things in a dramatic manner.
The story should be interesting. While pleas to patriotism are inevitable, they must not be a crutch.
The major historical events should feel exciting and immediate, I want to be shown and not told how important all of this is.
I demand a fair supply of powdered wigs and well-turned ankles on the men.
These are just demands, I think, and so let’s start our examination of The Heart of a Hero, which purports to tell the tale of Nathan Hale, schoolteacher-turned-spy whose quotable quote is still quoted wherever quoters quote. (Even if he may not have actually said it.)
He is a bit of a patron saint for American spycraft with a statue standing outside CIA headquarters, though his actual skill for espionage is suspect. The CIA itself suggests that tailor/spy Hercules Mulligan would be a better choice. (Deep Space Nine fans would agree heartily.)
The film is based on an 1899 four act play by Clyde Fitch. You can read a public domain version here. The play was adapted for the screen by Frances Marion, whose career as a screenwriter was coming along beautifully at this point.
The film opens in 1775. Nathan Hale (Robert Warwick) is the local schoolmaster and he teaches all the children and young adults of New London, Connecticut. His favorite pupil is Alice Adams (Gail Kane), who is a very bad girl and must often be kept inside with her teach during recess. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.)
Warwick was thirty-eight and Kane was twenty-nine at the time The Heart of a Hero was released, which makes this seem like less of a schoolroom and more of a particularly flirtatious junior college. I’m not complaining as this removes the squicky element inherent to these hot-for-teacher romances. (See M’Liss.) However, it should be noted that the real Nathan Hale was a mere twenty-one at the time of his death.
Hale and Alice continue their red hot romance complete with title cards that neatly prove Mr. Will Hays had yet to set foot in the movie business. Oh my!
The early schoolroom scenes are so cute that I wish the film had given the war a miss and kept class in session. Alas, it is not to be and we get our villain, Colonel Fitzroy (George McQuarrie), barging into the schoolhouse. Fitzroy wants to see if everyone is loyal to King George and he also takes the opportunity to flirt with Alice, who is his cousin. It’s quite clear that absolutely no one at the school is loyal to King George and they are on the verge of forming their own militia. Rah-rah-revolution, etc.
And here is where the film shoots itself in the foot. We have a revolutionary spirit, a bit generic but getting the job done, and we have a likable couple. And then the movie goes and throws in the notion of the villainous villain, Fitzroy, harassing Alice, who spurns him. Of all the tricks in the Hollywood trope basket, this is one of the more annoying. A big revolution is going on, the stakes are high and it’s all supposed to come down to a love triangle with the big bad as one of the points. Sigh.
The movie repeats the foot shooting when it has Hale and company go from mild-mannered schoolteacher and assorted townsfolk to the super commando force. Now the real Hale was successful in his military endeavors but it would be nice if the movie showed us how he got so good. Did he drill in the woods at night? Did he read up on tactics during recess? We don’t know because the movie never shows us. I mean, we see the kids practicing with sticks, how’s about a little training montage for the grownups?
Anyway, Hale comes up with some clever tactics and is soon promoted to captain. However, the British have a cunning plan and the Americans need to discover what it is. To do this, they need a spy to go undercover and report back with the skinny on British tactics. And guess who is the first to put his hand up?
Hale is incapable of lying, given to spontaneous bursts of affection for lover and/or country, and has a memorable face. In short, he is spectacularly ill-suited for any sort of espionage and yet off he goes because he is the one who volunteered. Why his commanding officer did not command someone else, I have no idea. Maybe he had it in for Hale.
In any case, Hale finds some British soldiers discussing their secret plans in a tavern and, wouldn’t you know it, one of them is Fitzroy. Hale manages to keep his cover for two whole minutes but Fitzroy realizes something is up when this happens:
Yeah… Hale’s spycraft is on par with a six-year-old playing James Bond.
Of course, Hale denies that he is Hale but Fitzroy remembers him (the fiend!) and realizes that he must be a spy. He even tries to goad our hero by claiming that he has kissed Alice and will make her his mistress but the schoolmaster is unflappable. Hale is kept under guard but unobserved and he uses this time to write what he has overheard in Latin, which is a pretty poor code if you think about it. Oh well, at least he got to practice his conjugation. And we get more of those spicy intertitles! Oh my!
The movie comes to a screeching halt at this point. There is much made of Fitzroy’s attempts to identify Hale but surely the British army had run into this sort of thing before. I mean, you can still arrest spies and other enemies even if they lie about their identity, right? Historical accounts available at the time would have been scanty, leaving playwrights and screenwriters a lot of leeway in inventing a creative and heroic capture. (Do read this fascinating piece from the Library of Congress about a Tory shopkeeper’s account of Hale’s capture, which would likely have been unavailable at the time this film was made. It reinforces the theory that Hale was brave but inexperienced and in over his head.)
Instead, Fitzroy sends a letter to Alice telling her that Hale is dying and wishes to see her, believing that she will give her lover away with an emotional outburst. Instead, Alice is warned and Fitzroy is in full “Curses! Foiled again!” mode. I don’t understand why he simply does not call for a loyalist from Hale’s hometown for identification.
Then Alice and Hale stand around pretending to not know one another whilst flirting shamelessly, which seems a rather ridiculous way to go about this spying business. It takes forever but Hale finally betrays himself in a wild burst of woo pitching. Sigh. This nonsensical business takes up nearly half the film’s runtime, which is poor writing any way you look at it. I have no problem with telescoping events and rearranging things in the interest of a good film but the changes here render the film tedious when it should be tragic and suspenseful.
History finally takes over from here, though I should note that the hanging scene is not at all graphic. Hale makes the speech that he purportedly made just before his death and we are shown a statue of him in modern times.
So, how was it? Er… Meh. I’m afraid that much of the blame must fall on Marion’s screenplay. She simply cleaves too closely to the original play, which is a deeply flawed bit of melodramatic sop and is the source of the pacing problems in the story. (Two out of the four acts are used in the interminable “is he is or is he ain’t my baby” scenes.) Later in her career, Marion would jettison source material without a second glance (succeeding in creating true art with Stella Maris or a royal stinkburger with The Cossacks) but not this time. Either the producers wanted to stay close to the spirit of the original or Marion lacked the influence to push through the much-needed changes.
However, credit where credit is due, these are the traps that this movie doesn’t fall into:
The Accidental Prognosticator:
How many historical films have contained dialogue like this: “Someday, New York will have as many as a thousand people! It will be like… a big apple!”
Groan. It must very cute at the writing staff meetings but all it does is pull the audience out of the movie.
And his name… was George Washington:
The heroes are hanging around with their friend Benjy, a local postmaster. After many adventures, Benjy gets out a kite with a key attached and then someone addresses him as Mr. Franklin. Groan.
Colonial Forrest Gump:
It’s a small world after all! The heroes run into absolutely every big name from the American Revolution, from Betsy Ross to Benedict Arnold to Ethan Allen. Golly!
We like him too much to kill him:
Sure, Nathan Hale really died but that seems so depressing! So we’ll just kind of forget the whole “death” part and end with a romantic clutch. Hollywood did this a lot with Billy the Kid.
So, we can be grateful. It could have been much worse.
Now for a few more positives. I have seen a few Robert Warwick films and knew he placed in the top 30 of the top films stars of 1916 but I must confess that I didn’t understand his appeal before. I do now. He has great chemistry with Gail Kane and their saucy flirtations are the highlight of the picture. Warwick comes across as fun and likable, an ideal sort of hero for a historical picture. Let’s face it, historical films can descend into stodginess without an appealing cast. It’s just a darn pity that the film sinks into a bog of bad plotting and dramatic poses near the end.
The Heart of a Hero has a strong beginning and the romantic leads are fun to watch but it soon tangles itself up in bizarre plot threads. While it has its strong points, this film does not break the American Revolution movie curse.
Where can I see it?
The Heart of a Hero was released on DVD by Grapevine.